They met at the library at eleven o’clock and holed up in one of the niches in the Linonia and Brothers reading room. Dawes had somehow chosen the exact spot where Alex loved to sit and read and fall asleep with her boots on the grate of the heater. How many times had she looked out at the courtyard through the wavy glass of the windows without knowing she was looking at the gateway to hell?
They set the pair of luminaries they’d procured from the armory at opposing corners of the entry to the reading nook. What they created when lit wasn’t precisely a glamour, but a swarm of thick shadow that repelled any curious gaze.
Fifteen minutes before midnight, a voice came over the loudspeaker reminding students that the library was closing. People laden with backpacks and satchels trudged out to make the walk home to dorms or apartments in a forced march past Halloween partiers. Security guards came through next, passing their flashlights over the shelves and reading tables.
Alex and the others waited, watching the flicker of the luminaries in the corners, pressed against the walls for no good reason, trying to be as quiet as possible. Tripp had worn the same polo, blazer, and backward cap he’d had on at their planning dinner. Turner was in what looked like expensive gym clothes and a puffer jacket. Dawes was in her sweats. Mercy had chosen fatigues paired with a black sweater and looked like the chicest member of a special forces unit. Alex was in Lethe sweats. She didn’t know what this night would bring, but she was tired of losing perfectly good clothing to the arcane.
Shortly after midnight and without warning, the lights clicked off. All that remained were dim security lights along the floors. The library had
gone silent. Dawes took out a thermos. To disrupt the alarm systems, she had brewed the same tempest in a teapot they’d used to break into the Peabody, but she’d steeped the tea longer and acquired a better-insulated container.
“Hurry,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will last.”
They got Mercy settled in the courtyard, and Alex and Dawes helped her into the salt armor—gauntlets, bracers, a helm that was far too big for her head. She even had a salt sword. It was all very impressive, but Alex had to wonder if it would stop a monster like Linus Reiter. When Mercy pulled a vial of Hiram’s elixir from her pocket, Alex wanted to swat it out of her hand. But the time for warnings and worry had past. Mercy had made her choice and they needed her here, their sentinel. Alex watched her pop the cork and down the contents, her eyes squeezed shut as if she were swallowing medicine. She shuddered and coughed, then blinked and laughed.
At least the first dose hadn’t killed her.
When Mercy was positioned by the basin with the ticking metronome set on the ground beside her, they crowded around the security desk at the front of the library, checked the Rose Walk for students passing by, then slipped outside.
“Quick,” said Dawes as one by one they made incisions on their arms.
“We should have done it across our palms,” said Tripp. “The way they do in movies.”
“No one gets infections in movies,” Turner shot back. “And I actually need the use of my hands.”
Alex hadn’t realized he had a holster and gun beneath his jacket. “I don’t think that’s going to do you much good in hell.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” he replied.
Dawes took a small bottle from her pocket and dribbled oil onto her thumb. She smeared it across each of their foreheads. This had to be the datura.
“Are we ready?” Dawes asked. “Hell yeah!” said Tripp.
“Keep your voice down,” snapped Turner. But Alex appreciated Tripp’s enthusiasm.
Dawes took a deep breath. “Let’s begin.”
They each touched their fingers to the blood welling from their arms.
“Soldier first,” Dawes said. Alex daubed her blood onto each of the four columns marking the entrance. Dawes followed, placing her blood over Alex’s, then Turner, and finally Tripp.
He looked at the smudge of their mingled blood and stood back. “How will we know if—”
Tripp was interrupted by a sound like a sigh, a whoosh of air as if a window had been thrown open.
The heavy wooden door beneath the Egyptian scribe had vanished, leaving nothing but darkness. No glimpse of the library nave beyond, no sign of life or light. It was like looking into nothing. A cold wind blew through on a moan.
“Oh,” said Dawes.
They stood in stunned silence, and Alex realized that, for all of their talk and preparation, none of them had really believed it would work. Despite every miracle and horror she had witnessed in her time at Yale, she hadn’t been able to buy into a pathway to the underworld hidden right beneath their noses. Had some other group of fools once stood at this doorway awakened by their blood, on this same precipice, trembling and afraid? Dawes claimed the Gauntlet had never been used. But again Alex had to wonder, if that was the case, why build it at all?
“Alex is first, right?” Tripp asked, a quaver in his voice.
Her courage had shriveled at the sight of all of that empty. But there was no time to second-guess. She could hear people approaching down the street. Come get me, Stern, he’d said. Please.
Alex touched her hand to the porcelain box in her pocket and stepped through the door.
Nothing happened. She was standing in Sterling’s cavernous nave. It looked no different than it had before.
Dawes bumped into her, and they both stumbled out of the way as Turner and then Tripp came through.
“I don’t get it,” said Tripp.
“We have to walk the path,” Dawes said. “That was only the start.”
Single file, they made their way down the nave toward the Alma Mater mural: soldier, scholar, priest, and prince, shrouded in gloom. A strange, shuffling parade. They turned right at the mural and marked the arches beneath the Tree of Knowledge with their blood. Again, the corridor beyond seemed to dissolve, as if their reality had dropped away and left a gaping void. Again, Alex took a deep breath, the diver preparing to sink beneath the surface, and stepped through.
On their right, they passed the glass door through which Alex would enter, but it wasn’t her time yet. The soldier would close the circle. They moved down the corridor, past Death peering over the student’s shoulder, and into the vestibule full of Jost Amman’s woodcuts. Above them Alex could just make out the black iron silhouettes of the mermen with their split tails, monster and man, man and monster.
The cut on Alex’s arm had begun to close, so she had to squeeze it to get the blood to well up again. One by one they anointed the doorway beside the stone spider, beneath the inscription of Yale’s motto. Light and Truth. It felt like a joke when the door disappeared into flat black darkness.
“This is your station,” Dawes whispered, the first words any of them had spoken since they’d stepped back into Sterling.
Tripp’s jaw was set. His fists were clenched. Alex could see he was shaking slightly. She almost expected him to just turn on his heel and march right out of the library. Instead he gave a single, firm nod of his head.
Alex gave him a quick squeeze on the shoulder. It was easy not to take Tripp seriously, but he was here facing the same shapeless dread as the rest of them, and he hadn’t complained once. “See you on the other side.”
They moved on, passing into another narrow hallway that would take them to the University Librarian’s office. It was even darker here, the walls crowding in on them. The office felt less empty than suddenly abandoned, the desk chair askew, papers in messy piles.
There was nothing remarkable about this door, but emblazoned on the other side of it was a large stone sundial and two stained glass knights standing guard.
They made fresh cuts and daubed the door jamb with their blood, ready this time for the gap of darkness that opened and the icy wind that blew through.
“Keep your head straight,” Turner said as he took up his post.
The secret door was right behind them, beside the big stone fireplace with its grumpy Latin, barely visible unless you knew where to look for the outline hidden in the paneling. Alex and Dawes passed through it and into another dark, tiny vestibule that had no real purpose—unless you were trying to circumnavigate the courtyard.
They emerged in Linonia and Brothers, on the opposite end of the room from the niche where they’d hidden. Here again, it felt as if the place had been abandoned, as if the absence of the human could be felt.
At last they stood at the original entrance to the courtyard, Selin’s name emblazoned across the stone lintel in golden letters.
Alex didn’t want to leave Dawes there. She didn’t want to be alone in this dark cathedral of a building.
“The niches are all empty,” Dawes said. “They are?” Alex asked, completely lost.
Dawes had the silver pitch pipe in her hands and her voice was quiet but steady. “All over the library, you can see these spaces, these stone frames where a sculpture of a saint should be, like in a cathedral. But they’re all empty.”
“No one really knows. Some people think they ran out of money. Some people say the architect wanted the building to look like it had been sacked. All of its treasures stolen.”
“What do you think?” Alex asked. She could feel they were in uncertain territory, that this story, these words were what Dawes needed to keep going.
“I don’t know,” Dawes said at last. “We all have hollow places.”
“We’re going to bring him home, Dawes. We’re going to make it out of this.”
“I believe you. At least the first part.” She took a deep breath, set her shoulders. “I’ll be watching.”
Alex smeared her blood onto the entry. Dawes followed. This time the big double doors looked like they collapsed in on themselves, folding like paper as the wind howled through. It was louder now, moaning, as if whatever was on the other side of the darkness knew they were coming.
“Look,” Dawes said.
The script above the door had shifted into a different language. “What does it say?” Alex asked.
“I don’t know,” Dawes said. She sounded breathless. “I don’t even recognize the alphabet.”
Alex had to force her feet to move. But she knew it wouldn’t get any easier. It never did.
“Be ready,” she told Dawes, and then she was rounding back past the entrance and down the nave once more. The soldier. The one to walk alone. Alma Mater gazed benevolently down at her, surrounded by artists and scholars, flanked by Truth, naked in her allegory.
It wasn’t until Alex was right in front of the mural that she realized what had changed. They were all staring at her now. The sculptor, the monk, Truth with her mirror, Light with her torch. They were watching her, and whatever human features the artist had granted them did not seem quite natural anymore. Their faces looked like masks, and the eyes peering through them were too bright, alive and keen with hunger.
She made herself keep walking, resisting the urge to look back, to see if somehow one of them had pried itself free of the frame and crept after her. She passed beneath the Tree of Knowledge, noting the sculptural niche at its center. Empty. How had she never noticed that before?
Finally, she arrived at the glass door that would lead her to the courtyard. A panel of yellow and blue stained glass marked the entrance. She had looked it up. Daniel in the lions’ den.
“We’re coming for you, Darlington,” she whispered. She could hear the soft ticking of the metronome.
Once more she touched the porcelain box in her pocket. I have been crying out to you from the start. She dipped her thumb into her blood and dragged it across the door.
It vanished. Alex stared into the starless void, felt the cold of it, heard the rising wind, and then, floating above it, the soft sweet hum of middle C. Come on along. Come on along. She stepped into the courtyard.
As soon as her boot hit the stone path, the ground seemed to shake. “Shit,” Tripp squeaked from somewhere to her left.
She could see now: ordinary night, Mercy at the courtyard’s center, Dawes, Tripp, and Turner at the other corners.
She kept walking, kept marching toward the basin, keeping time with the metronome. With every step came another little earthquake. Boom. Boom. Boom. Alex could barely keep her footing.
Ahead she saw Mercy, her face panicked, trying not to tip over.
They were all stumbling now, the stones of the courtyard buckling beneath them, but still the metronome ticked away.
Maybe the ground would just open up and swallow them. Maybe that was what Dawes had meant by submerged.
“Is this supposed to happen?” Tripp shouted. “Keep going,” Alex yelled, lurching forward. “The basin!” cried Mercy.
The square basin was overflowing, water gushing past the cherubs, pooling at its base, and coursing through the crevices between the stones, creeping toward them. Alex felt a weird relief that it wasn’t blood.
The water struck her boots. It was hot. “It stinks,” muttered Tripp.
“Sulfur,” said Turner.
It’s just a river, Alex told herself. Though she didn’t know which one. All borderlands were marked by rivers, places where the mortal world became permeable and you could cross into the afterlife.
They splashed through, the water level rising, still marching, still in unison. When they reached the fountain, they stood staring at each other as the water boiled and bubbled over the sides. The cherubs sat at each of the basin’s corners, gazing into its center, eyes trained on nothing. But maybe they’d simply been keeping a watch, waiting for the door to open.
Dawes’s teeth were dug into her lower lip; her chest rose and fell in short, shallow pants. Tripp was nodding as if he heard secret music, a
psych-up song from some collection of Jock Jams. Turner’s face was stern, his mouth set in a determined line. He was the only one of them with experience in anything close to this. He’d probably kicked a few doors down in his time, without knowing what trouble might be waiting on the other side. But this wasn’t really like that, was it?
They were pilgrims. They were cosmonauts. They were as good as dead.
“On three,” Dawes said, her voice cracking.
They counted together, their voices barely audible over the rush of the water.
A wind rose suddenly, that cold wind they’d all felt rushing through the darkness. Now it shook the courtyard trees and rattled the windows in their casements.
Light seemed to bloom from the stones at their feet and Dawes gasped. When Alex looked down, there was no paving, no grass. She was looking into the water, and it just went down and down.
Dawes cast a desperate glance at Mercy and handed her the silver pitch pipe. “Watch over us,” she pleaded.
“Run if you have to,” Alex said.
Their eyes met and they clasped the sides of the basin.
Alex didn’t remember falling, but suddenly she was on her back in the water, sinking fast, the river closing over her. She tried to push toward the surface, but something grabbed her wrist, an arm wrapped around her waist. She screamed, felt the water rush in. Fingers pushed into her mouth, trying to dig into her eye sockets, clawing into the skin of her arms and legs, their grip cold and unrelenting.
Buried alive. This wasn’t supposed to be what it was like. It was supposed to feel like falling, like flying. She tried to shout for Dawes, for Mercy, for Turner, but there were fingers shoving into her throat, making her gag. They were in her ears, pushing between her legs.
What if Dawes and the others were still up there? The thought sent a fresh bolt of terror through her. She’d thrown herself into hell, but what if they were still in the courtyard? Or they were soaring into some better realm while she alone was torn apart? Because she was the problem. She had always been the problem. The only real sinner in the bunch. Turner had, what? Brought down a bad guy in the line of duty and it still tormented his Eagle Scout conscience? Dawes had killed Blake to save Alex’s life. Muddleheaded Tripp had no doubt bumbled into something he couldn’t handle.
But Alex was the real thing. She’d taken a bat to Len, to Ariel, to all the rest, and she’d never lost a minute of sleep over the things she’d done. Something on the other side was waiting to claim her. It had been waiting a long time, and now that it had hold of her, it wasn’t going to let go. Those hands were hungry. She’d felt the pull of that appetite drawing her across the city to Black Elm. She’d told herself it was because she was special, the Wheelwalker, but maybe the real reason she’d been able to pierce the circle of protection was because she didn’t belong among the mortal, law-abiding
citizens of this world. She’d never been punished for her crimes, never felt remorse, and now she’d plunged right into a reckoning.
The fingers seemed to press straight through her, hooks lodging in her skin and bones. She struggled for a gulp of air, hot and stinking of sulfur. She didn’t care. She could breathe again. The water was gone. The fingers weren’t clogging her throat. It ached to open her eyes, but when she did, she saw black night, shooting stars, a rain of fire. Was she falling? Flying? Shooting toward something or drowning in darkness? She didn’t know. Sweat dribbled down her neck, the heat coming from everywhere, like she was being cooked in her own skin.
She hit the ground hard, the impact sudden, driving a short, broken sob from her chest.
She tried to sit up. Slowly, she began to see shapes emerge in the dark … a staircase, a high ceiling. She put her hand on the floor to try to push to her feet and felt something warm and squirming. She recoiled, but when she looked down, there was nothing there, just the rug, a familiar pattern, the polished boards, the coffered ceiling overhead. Where was she? She couldn’t remember. Her head hurt. She’d gone to open the door and Alex had screamed at her, told her to stop. No, that wasn’t right.
Pam tried to make her legs work. She touched her fingers to the back of her head, to the aching spot on her scalp where she could feel her pulse, then snatched her fingers back, gasping at the pain. Why couldn’t she think? She was supposed to order pizza. Maybe she should cook instead. Alex had been heading upstairs to shower. They were grieving. Together. She remembered Dean Sandow speaking those horrible, final words. No one will be made welcome. Tears filled her eyes. She didn’t want to cry. She didn’t want Alex to find her weeping—it was only then that she really grasped where she was: at the base of the stairs at Il Bastone, shards of stained glass scattered around her. She touched the back of her head again,
ready for the pain this time.
Someone had knocked her into the wall when she’d opened the door. An accident. She was clumsy. She’d gotten in the way. Wrong place, wrong
time. But hadn’t she locked the door? And why was it still open? Where was Alex?
Music was playing. A song she knew by the Smiths. She heard voices somewhere in the house, footfalls, someone running. She made herself stand, ignoring the wave of nausea that flooded her mouth with saliva.
Pam heard something howl outside and then a flood of hairy bodies crowded through the front door. The jackals. She’d seen them only once before, when Darlington called them. She cringed against the wall, but they rushed right past her, a pack of fur and snapping teeth, the wild animal scent of dust and dung and oily fur rising from them in a cloud.
“Alex?” she ventured. Someone had broken in, pushed past her. Alex was okay, wasn’t she? She was the kind of girl who was always okay. “A survivor,” Darlington had once said, admiration in his voice. “Rough around the edges, but we’ll see if we’ve mined a diamond, won’t we, Pammie?”
Pam had done her best to smile. She’d never liked that phrase, diamond in the rough. All that meant was they had to cut you again and again to let the light in.
She hadn’t been sure if she wanted Alex to fail. She’d felt a certain consolation when their new Dante arrived and she got her first look at this scrawny girl with her bowstring arms and hollow eyes. She was nothing like the cultured, poised girls who had come before. Pam’s first impulse had been to feed her. But the way you’d feed a stray, carefully, coaxingly, never from your hand. Darlington hadn’t seemed to understand that Alex was dangerous. Although she never asked anything of Dawes. She never gave her orders or made demands. She cleaned up her own messes and skulked around like a rat who was afraid of being noticed by the barn cats. There was no Could you do me a huge favor and whip up something so I can surprise my roommates? No Can I throw a few extra things in the wash?
Pam had felt restless, useless, and grateful all at once. Darlington had muttered his complaints about the girl, but then that night when they’d gone to Beinecke, everything had changed. They’d come back and smashed half the glassware and gotten roaring drunk, and Pam had fastened her headphones over her ears, put on Fleetwood Mac, and done her very best to
ignore them. She’d found them passed out in the parlor the next morning, but to Alex’s credit she’d stayed and tidied up right alongside Darlington.
And then he’d disappeared, and Dawes hadn’t been able to forgive this girl who charged through the world like an unintended consequence, a calamity for everyone and everything around her.
I have to move, she told herself. Something is happening, something bad. She had the sickly feeling she’d had when her parents argued. The house didn’t feel right. It’s okay, bunny, her mother would say, tucking her in at night. We’re all okay.
For a second Pam thought she might be hallucinating or about to black out, but no, the lights really were flickering. She heard dishes crash from the kitchen, then a cry from above.
Pam grabbed hold of the banister and dragged herself up the stairs. Dread made her feet heavy. She spent every day afraid, of saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong question, humiliating herself. Standing in line, scrambling for change, she felt her face flush, her heart race, thinking of all the people behind her, waiting. That was all it took to flood her body with terror. She should be used to fear. But God, she did not want to climb these stairs. She heard men’s voices, then Alex. She sounded furious, and so scared. Alex never sounded scared.
Suddenly the jackals were rushing past her again, whimpering and yelping, nearly knocking her from her feet. Why were they going? Why had they come at all? Why did she feel like a stranger in this house she’d spent years in?
At last she reached the landing, but she couldn’t make sense of any of what she saw. There was blood everywhere. The musky stink of animals hung thick in the air. The dean was slumped against the wall, his femur jutting from his leg, a sudden white exclamation point in search of a sentence. Dawes gagged. What was this? What had happened here? Things like this didn’t happen at Il Bastone. They weren’t allowed.
Alex was on her back on the floor and there was a boy on top of her. He was beautiful, an angel with golden curls and the loveliest face she’d ever
seen. He was weeping, trembling. They looked like lovers. He had his hands in Alex’s hair, as if he meant to kiss her.
And there was something in Pam’s hands too, warm and softly furred and squirming, a living thing. She could feel its heartbeat against her palms. No. It was just a piece of sculpture, cold and lifeless, the bust of Hiram Bingham III. They kept it on a cane stand by the front door. She couldn’t remember picking it up, but she knew what she was supposed to do with it.
But she couldn’t.
She could call the police. She could run away. But the stone was too heavy in her hands. She didn’t know how to hurt someone, even someone awful like Blake Keely, even after he’d hurt her. Blake had shoved his way into the house and let her lie bleeding on the floor. He’d hurt the dean. He was going to kill Alex.
She was a little girl on the playground, too tall, heavy-breasted, built all wrong. Her clothes didn’t fit. She got tangled in her own feet. She was huddled at the bus stop trying not to react as boys from the high school drove by shouting Show us your tits. She was choosing the back row of every classroom, hunched up in the corner. Afraid. Afraid. She’d spent her whole life afraid.
She wasn’t made like Alex or Darlington. She was a scholar. She was a rabbit, timid and defenseless, no claws or teeth. Her only choice was to run. But where would she run with Darlington gone, the dean, Alex? Who would she be if she did nothing?
She was standing over them, looking down on the boy and Alex. She saw them from a great height, and she was the angel now, maybe a harpy, descending with sword in hand. She raised the bust and brought it down on the beautiful boy’s head. His skull gave way, the sound wet and soft, as if he’d been made of papier-mâché. She hadn’t meant to hit him so hard. Or had she? Little bunny, what did you do? She watched as he slumped to the side. Her own legs gave way and now she wept. She couldn’t help it. She
wasn’t sure if she was crying for Blake or Darlington or Alex or herself. She bent and vomited. Why wouldn’t the room stop moving?
Pam lifted her head, felt cool air on her cheeks, salt spray. The floor tilted back and forth, a ship adrift on the waves. She clung to the ropes.
“Try to keep up, Tripp.”
The storm shouldn’t have been a big deal. They’d checked the weather.
They always did. Temperature. Pressure. Predicted wind speed.
But every time he was out on the boat, Tripp felt a twitching sense of panic. He was okay when it was just him and his dad or his other cousins, but when Spenser joined them, he got weird. It was like his brain just stopped doing what it was told.
His feet and hands felt bigger. He got slower. Suddenly he had to think, really think, about his left and his right, port and starboard, which was fucking ridiculous. He’d been sailing since he was a kid.
Spenser was just so good at everything. He rode horses and ATVs. He raced bikes and cars. He knew how to shoot, and he worked for a living, made his own money, and he always had some beautiful girl on his arm. Some beautiful woman. They were all accomplished and silky and Tripp felt like a kid around them, even though he was the one at Yale, and Spenser was only a few years older.
Tripp didn’t even understand why Spenser got to take the helm. They’d both sailed competitively, so had his father, but Spenser just slid into the role with a big white smile. Part of it was the way he looked. Sharp, lean. He didn’t have that Helmuth baby face. He had a real jaw, the look of someone you didn’t want to fuck with.
Spenser always addressed Tripp’s father as sir. “A pleasure to be aboard, sir, she handles like a dream.” Then he’d sling an arm around Tripp’s neck and crow, “Tripp, my man!” before he leaned in and whispered, “How’s it going, shitstain?”
When Tripp stiffened up, Spenser would just laugh and say, “Try to keep up.”
And that was how the day went. Grab that line! Get it on the winch! Is that kite ready? Come on, Tripp, try to keep up!
The storm that came in wasn’t a big one. It wasn’t scary. At least no one else seemed to think it was. Tripp had pulled on a life vest, slinging the thin snake of fabric around his neck, strapping it at his waist as he stood in the companionway. You barely knew it was on—it wouldn’t inflate unless it hit the water—so what was the big deal?
But as soon as Spenser saw him, he burst out laughing. “The fuck is wrong with you? It’s rain, dumbass.”
Tripp’s father just turned his face to the sky and laughed, the wind lifting his hair. “Now this is some weather!”
Tripp hated it. The gray swells like the humped shoulders of some big animal, nudging the ship, playing with it. You could really feel the sea beneath you, just how big it was, just how little it cared, the way it could smash a mast, crack a hull, drown them all with a single shrug. All he could do was hold on tight—one hand for yourself, one for the ship, that was the rule, same as the life vest—make himself keep smiling, and pray he wouldn’t vomit, because he’d never hear the end of it.
Spenser hadn’t been fooled.
“Shit your pants yet, pussy?” he said with a grin. “Try to keep up.”
Tripp wanted to scream at him to fuck off and leave him alone. But that would only make things worse. Can’t you take a joke, Tripp? Jesus.
His only hope was to keep pretending that he was in on it, that he loved Spenser the way everyone else did, that it was all good fun. It was pathetic to be scared of a little storm, or his stupid, cocky cousin. Except he had every reason to be terrified of them both. The storm, at least, was just being a storm. It wasn’t out to hurt him. Spenser was something different.
When Tripp was eight, the whole family had gathered at his family’s house for his birthday. Spenser was a jerk even back then, but Tripp hadn’t cared about Spenser that day. It was his birthday and that meant his friends, and a new PlayStation, and the ice cream he liked even though Spenser had shoved his bowl of cookies and cream away and snapped, “I hate this shit.”
Tripp had eaten cake and opened his presents and played in the pool until his friends had gone home and it was just family. He had a sunburn.
They were going to cook out that night. He felt lazy and happy, and when he thought about the fact that he didn’t have school tomorrow, that he still had the rest of the weekend to do nothing, it was like he was taking in big gulps of sunshine with every breath.
He’d been swimming around in the shallow end with his new snorkel when he’d emerged to see Spenser standing at the edge of the pool in his long board shorts, his blond hair hanging in a sun-streaked sheaf over his eyes so that Tripp couldn’t quite make out his expression. Tripp had scanned the yard. He’d learned Spenser doled out fewer pinches and punches when someone else was around. But Tripp’s dad and his younger brother were setting up a volleyball net on the other side of the grass. His mother and the other cousins must have already gone inside.
“What’s up?” he’d squeaked, already moving for the steps.
But Spenser was faster. He was always faster. He dropped into the water with barely a splash and slapped his hand against Tripp’s chest, shoving him backward.
“You have a good day?” Spenser asked.
“Sure,” Tripp had said, unsure of why he was suddenly so frightened, struggling not to cry. There was no reason to cry.
“You need your birthday dunking. Twenty seconds underwater. That’s nothing. Even for a little bitch like you.”
“I’m ready to go in.”
“Are you serious?” Spenser said in disbelief. “Dude, just when I thought you were being cool. You’re telling me you can’t handle a few seconds underwater?”
Tripp knew it was a trap, but … what if it wasn’t? What if he just did this thing and then he and Spenser would be okay, they’d be friends, like Spenser was friends with everyone. I thought you were being cool. He could be cool.
“Just put my head under water for twenty seconds?” “Yeah, but if you’re too much of a bitch…”
He’s not going to drown me, Tripp thought. He’s an asshole and he’ll hold me under for a while, but he’s not actually going to try to kill me. He’s
going to try to scare me and I’m not going to let him. Tripp liked that idea a lot.
“Fine,” Tripp said. “Twenty whole seconds. Time me.” And he dunked his head under.
He felt Spenser’s hands on his shoulders right away. He knew Spenser wanted him to struggle, but he wasn’t going to do it. He was going to be still, hold his breath, stay calm. He counted the seconds in his head, slow. He knew Spenser would hold him under longer and he was ready for that too.
Spenser shoved him lower, got his foot on Tripp’s chest. Don’t panic, stay still. His other foot pushed down on Tripp’s belly, trying to drive the air out, and Tripp had to give up a little, the bubbles escaping to the surface. Spenser’s right foot traveled and Tripp understood what he was doing seconds before he felt Spenser’s heel grind down into his crotch, his toes digging into Tripp’s balls.
Now Tripp was wriggling, pinned to the bottom of the pool, trying to push Spenser off. He knew Spenser was enjoying it, and he hated himself for reacting, hated the way his flesh crawled at the feeling of that foot with its seeking toes. His mind wasn’t cooperating anymore. His chest hurt. He was scared. Why had he thought he could handle this? He’ll let me go. He has to let me go. Spenser was mean, not a psychopath. He wasn’t a killer. He was just a jerk.
But what did Tripp really know about how far Spenser would go? Spenser liked to mess around. He’d put chili powder in their dog’s food and laughed until his eyes watered when she whimpered and cried. Once, when Tripp was really small, Spenser had kept him from getting to the bathroom, knocking him into the wall again and again, shouting “Pinball! Pinball!” until Tripp had wet himself. So maybe Spenser really was bad, the kind of bad in books and movies.
He’d be laughing now, enjoying the way Tripp tried to buck him off.
What a dumb way to die, Tripp thought as he gave in, as he opened his mouth and water flooded down his throat, the chlorine sharp in his nose, the terror complete as he tore at Spenser’s calves, and the world went black.
The next thing he knew he was looking up at his father’s suntanned face. Tripp was coughing and he couldn’t stop, the pain in his lungs hot and tight, as if his whole chest had caught fire and the burn had hollowed him out.
“He’s breathing!” his father cried.
Tripp was on his back in the grass, blue sky above, the clouds small and perfectly contained like a cartoon. His mother’s hands were balled into fists she’d pressed against her mouth, tears on her cheeks. He saw his cousins above him, his uncle, Spenser’s father, and Spenser too, his eyes narrowed.
Tripp tried to point to him, to speak the words as his father sat him up.
Spenser did it on purpose. But he was coughing too hard.
“That’s it, buddy,” his father said. “You’re all right. Just breathe. Take it slow.”
He tried to kill me.
But Spenser’s cold eyes were on him and Tripp felt like he was still pinned to the bottom of the pool. Spenser wasn’t like him, wasn’t like any of them. What wouldn’t he do?
As if in answer, Spenser burst into tears. “I thought he was just joking around,” he said, swallowing back sobs. “I didn’t realize he was in trouble.” “Hey,” Tripp’s father said, clapping a hand on Spenser’s shoulder. “This
was an accident. I’m just grateful you got to him when you did.”
Someone must have looked over to the pool, must have shown too much interest. Spenser would have acted quickly, pretended he was trying to save Tripp. And who would think otherwise? Who could imagine?
“Should we take him to the hospital?” Tripp’s mother asked. Spenser gave the faintest shake of his head.
Everyone was staring at Tripp, worried about him. Only Spenser’s mother was standing away from the circle; only she was watching her son. There was worry in her eyes. Or maybe it was fear. She knows what he is.
“I’m fine,” Tripp said hoarsely, and Spenser’s lips twitched in a smile that he covered with another sob.
Nothing changed after that. But Tripp was careful never to be alone with Spenser again.
Even at eight years old, Tripp knew he wasn’t smart or charming or handsome like Spenser. He knew that if he’d pointed his finger that day, told the truth, no one would have believed him. They’d say he’d misunderstood, maybe even that there was something wrong with him to think such a thing. He would be the monster. So maybe something had changed after all, something inside Tripp, because now he saw that Spenser would always win, and worse, he knew why. Spenser would win because everyone liked him better. Even Tripp’s own parents. It was that simple. That understanding sat in his chest, lodged against his heart, a heaviness that stayed with him, long after his lungs had stopped hurting and the cough had gone. It made him fearful, awkward, and it was why, ten years later on a sailboat caught in a minor storm, Tripp was the only one who saw it when Spenser went into the sea.
It happened quickly. Spenser liked to sneak up on Tripp, startle him, try to get him to drop something or just give him a sharp jab in the side. So Tripp tried to always stay aware of where Spenser was, and he was watching when Spenser strode across the deck and ducked under the boom. His body was hidden behind the mainsail, only his legs visible, and for a second Tripp couldn’t figure out what he was doing. Everyone else was focused on their own jobs, on getting through the storm. Tripp glanced back at his father, who was taking his turn at the helm now, his gaze fixed on the horizon.
Tripp saw Spenser reach down, bending over the railing to grab for a line that had slipped off the deck and was trailing in the water. That wasn’t good—a trailing line could get sucked under the ship, mess with the tiller or the keep—but Spenser should have called for help. Instead he was hanging over the rail, both hands outstretched. Tripp had time to think, One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship, before the wave struck, a gray wash of water, a cat’s paw batting at a toy, and Spenser was gone.
Tripp stood frozen for the briefest second. He even opened his mouth to cry out. And then he just … didn’t. He looked around, realized everyone was still absorbed in their own tasks, shouting at each other, tense but enjoying the wind and the wild rain.
Without running, without haste, Tripp followed the path Spenser had taken, ducked under the boom, then straightened up, hidden from the others as Spenser had been. He saw Spenser in the gray waves, his red windbreaker like a warning flag, his head appearing and disappearing. And Spenser saw him too. Tripp felt sure of that. He raised his arm, desperately waving, shouted, the sound snatched away by the wind. Tripp was close enough to see his mouth open, but he couldn’t tell if the sound he heard was Spenser’s cry or his own imagination.
He knew that each second mattered, that the distance between the ship and Spenser was growing with every moment. The railing beneath his palm squirmed like a warm body, soft with fur. Tripp recoiled, drew his hand to his chest, but there was nothing to see, only cold metal.
There was still time to do the right thing. He knew that. He knew the man-overboard drill. His job was to keep his eyes on Spenser and shout for help, hold on to the railing with one hand, and use the other to point out his location. It was just too easy to lose sight of someone among the peaks and valleys of the waves. The crew would bring the boat about. They’d throw out a line and drag Spenser from the water, and Spenser would shove him and demand to know why he hadn’t moved faster, what the fuck was wrong with him. Tripp’s father would wonder too. Spenser wouldn’t be afraid, just angry. Because Spenser always won.
He was barely visible now. A life vest would have kept him afloat. If he’d put one on. Tripp had to squint to see the red windbreaker in the water.
He took hold of the railing with one hand and lowered himself down to sit so he was secure—the way he’d been taught. Then he reached down to take hold of the line that was trailing over the edge, the one Spenser had tried to bring in.
Tripp spared a last glance over his shoulder at the slate-colored sea, crowded with eager waves, looking for their chance.
“Try to keep up,” he whispered and set to work hauling in the line. He coiled it neatly, felt the rope move easily in his hands, his body confident with new grace, the knots like a song he’d always known.
He felt the weight against his heart ease at last. Rain spattered his cheeks, but he wasn’t afraid.
It was only weather. The sea settled. He was on solid ground.
“It’s just rain,” Carmichael said. “You afraid you’re gonna melt, sugar?” Turner made himself laugh because Carmichael thought he was funny,
and hell, sometimes he was.
The day was cold, the streets slick and black, wet eel skin bordered by heaps of dirty snow sagging in the rain. It wasn’t even proper rain, just a pattering damp that made Turner desperate for a hot shower. If there had been a market for shitty East Coast mornings, New Haven could have made a killing.
Carmichael slumped beside him in one of his rumpled Men’s Wearhouse suits, tapping his fingers in the “We Will Rock You” rhythmic jabs he always used when he was craving a cigarette. His wife, Andrea, had demanded he quit, and Car was doing his best. “She won’t even kiss me until I’ve gone a month smoke-free,” Car complained, shoving a stick of gum into his mouth. “Says it’s a filthy habit.”
Turner agreed, and he wanted to send Andrea a bouquet for pushing Carmichael to quit. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get the smoke stink out of his seat cushions. Turner could have said no that first day when he’d picked up Carmichael in front of his tidy yellow house with the turf lawn. He just hadn’t had the balls.
Chris Carmichael was practically a living legend. He’d been on the force for twenty-five years, made detective at age thirty, and his close rate was so high, uniforms called him the Sandman because he’d put so many cases to bed. Carmichael did not fuck around. Having him as your rabbi meant prime cases, promotions, maybe even commendations. Car and his buddies had taken Turner out drinking after he’d earned his spot on the squad, and somewhere during the bleary night of whiskey and the bleating of a bad Journey cover band, Carmichael had clamped his hand on Turner’s shoulder and leaned in to demand, “You one of the good ones?”
Turner hadn’t asked him to explain, hadn’t told him to take his bullshit elsewhere. He’d just smiled and said, “Damn right, sir.”
Carmichael—Big Car—had laughed and cupped the back of Turner’s head with his meaty hand and said, “That’s what I thought. Stick with me, kid.”
It was a friendly gesture, Carmichael letting everyone know Turner had his approval and his protection. It was a good thing, and Turner told himself to be glad. But he’d had the uneasy sense of the world doubling, of some other timeline where Big Car put his hand atop Turner’s head and shoved him into the back of a police car.
On this morning, he’d picked up Carmichael and they’d gone to get coffee at a Dunkin’. Or Turner had gone. He was the junior detective and that meant doing shit work in shit weather. He always kept an umbrella with him, and it always made Car chuckle.
“It’s just rain, Turner.” “It’s a silk suit, Car.”
“Remind me to introduce you to my tailor so we can get to lowering your standards.”
Turner smiled and hurried into the donut shop, nabbed two black coffees and a couple of breakfast sandwiches.
“Where we headed?” he asked when he slid back into the car and handed over the coffee.
Carmichael shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. He’d been a boxer in his youth, and you still wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of his right hook, but his big shoulders sloped a little now and his gut hung over his belt. “Got a tip King Tut might be holing up in a duplex on Orchard.”
“You shitting me?” Turner asked, his heart starting to race.
That explained why Car had been so twitchy this morning. They’d been looking into a series of B&Es in the Wooster Square area and they’d come up empty again and again. It had been like beating their heads against a wall until one of Carmichael’s CIs had pointed them toward Delan Tuttle, a small-time crook who’d gotten out of Osborn just weeks before the break-ins had started. He looked good for the robberies, but he wasn’t at the address he’d registered with his parole officer, and every lead they’d had on him had gone cold.
Turner could at least relax a bit now. Carmichael had set off all his alarm bells that morning, too bright-eyed, too excited. Turner’s first thought was that Car was high. It did happen—never with Carmichael, and rarely with detectives, but when you were working back-to-back shifts as a beat cop, it wasn’t unheard of to snort a little Adderall—or coke if you could get it—to keep you from sleepwalking through hour twelve.
Turner kept clean, of course. He had enough hoops to jump through without worrying about a urine test. And he’d never had trouble staying awake on the job. His father had said it best: You get the habit of looking out, you don’t ever lose it. Eamon Turner ran an appliance repair shop, and eventually he would die in front of a row of used stereos and DVD players
—not at the hands of one of the kids who occasionally rolled up on the shop hoping to find a flat-screen or some hidden treasure, but from a heart attack that felled him silently. Business had been bad for a long time, and his father’s body wasn’t found until late afternoon when Naomi Laschen had come to pick up her ancient panini press. Turner had told himself it wasn’t a bad way to go, but he’d been tormented by the thought of his father dying alone in a room full of obsolete machines, running down the way they all did in the end.
Now Turner squealed out of the parking lot and headed toward Kensington. “How do you want to handle this?”
Car took a big bite of his sandwich. “Let’s come down on Elm, past that auto repair place. Get our bearings.” He cut Turner a glance and grinned, grease on his chin. “Your little storm cloud go home for the day?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Turner said with a laugh.
Turner was moody. Always had been. He had to watch for it. If people picked up on that mood too often, suddenly they started steering clear, invitations to grab a beer dried up, no one pulled you in when they needed an extra man. It could be enough to kill a career. So Turner tried to smile, keep his shoulders loose, make things easy for everyone around him. But today he’d woken up feeling that weight bearing down on him, that prickle in the back of his skull, the sense that something bad was brewing. The shit weather and weak coffee hadn’t helped.
From the time he was a kid, Turner had an ear for trouble coming. He could spot an undercover without even trying, always knew when a black-and-white was about to round a corner. His friends thought it was spooky, but his father told him it just meant he was a natural detective. Turner liked that thought. He wasn’t particularly good at sports or art or school, but he did have a sense for people and what they might do. He knew when someone was sick, like he could smell it on them. He knew when someone was lying even if he wasn’t sure how he knew. He’d just get that prickle at the back of his skull that told him to pay attention. He learned to listen to that feeling, and that if he kept smiling, kept the dark part of his heart hidden, people really liked talking to him. He could get his mom or his brother or his friends or even his teachers to tell him a little more than they’d set out to tell.
Turner also learned to expect the look of shame that came over their faces when they realized how much they’d said. So he practiced not showing too much sympathy or too much interest at all. That way they could convince themselves they hadn’t said anything worth being embarrassed about. They didn’t feel weak or small, and they had no reason to avoid him. And they never suspected that Turner remembered every single word.
On the force, they called him Prince Charming, chalked up his way with witnesses and informants to his looks. But they never understood that the charm that got some perp talking about his mom, his dog, the pull he’d done as a favor to a friend just out of the joint, was the same charm that got Turner’s fellow officers yapping about their lives and their troubles over shots at Geronimo.
The prickle usually came before the phone rang with bad news, or before the wrong knock at the door. But ever since he’d joined the force, he’d been on high alert, like he was always sure something bad was about to happen. He didn’t know how to sort that kind of paranoia from actual alarm.
“Of all the things,” his mother had said when he told her he was enrolling at the academy. “Why ask worry to stay awhile?”
She’d wanted him to be a lawyer, a doctor—hell, a mortician. Anything but police. His friends had laughed at him. But he’d always been the outlier, the good boy, the hall monitor.
“The overseer,” his brother had said to him once. “Say what you want, but you like that badge and gun.”
Turner didn’t think that was true. Most of the time. He’d done a lot of talking about changing the system from the inside, about being a force for good, and he’d meant it all. He loved his family, loved his people. He could be their sword and their protector. He needed to believe he could. At the academy, the brass had wanted him there, boosting their stats. There’d been enough black and brown faces and everyone on their best behavior. Not so much when he’d been in uniform. Then it was all us-versus-them, a sense of dread every time he passed the invisible line between work and his own neighborhood. After he made detective, it was even worse, a constant sense of premonition—never proven, never disproven.
And plenty of bad things did happen, but Turner was determined not to let them get to him. It’s the long game, he told himself when the hazing got rough. Survive the bad job to get to the great career, to get to the top of the mountain, where he could actually see what needed to be done, where he would have the power to do it. He knew he could be a legend like Big Car, better than Big Car. He just had to endure. They put shit in his shoes, he stepped right in it, stomped around the locker room pretending he didn’t notice, making them laugh. They got a hooker to hike up her dress and fuck a nightstick on the hood of his car, he laughed and cheered and pretended to enjoy it. He would play until they got tired of playing. That was the deal he made with himself.
It all paid off when Carmichael’s partner retired and Turner got his slot. That was Big Car’s doing. Turner wanted to believe that it was because he’d been a good sport about paying his dues, or because he was a genuinely great detective, or because Car respected his ambition. And that all might be true, but he also knew Car wanted to be seen buddying up to a Black man. Carmichael was getting older, closer to retirement, and he didn’t have a spotless record. He had a questionable shoot in his file—the kid had been armed, but he was still a kid—and a couple of complaints
lodged by suspects who said he’d gone rough on them. All in the past, but all the kind of thing that could come back to bite you on the ass if you weren’t careful. Turner was cover. And that was fine. If partnering with Carmichael would move him up the ladder, he was happy to play brown shield for him.
As they pulled up a few blocks from the duplex, Turner scowled. “We sure this is an actual lead?” he asked.
“You think my CI is fucking with me?”
Turner bobbed his head toward the rundown building, the garbage cans lying on their side in the muddy front yard, the snow covering the driveway, the heaps of junk mail on the front porch. “Looks like a roust.”
“Fuck,” said Carmichael. Sometimes CIs called the cops in when they needed to get squatters out of a building. And it definitely looked like no one was living in that duplex. At least no one paying rent.
The rain had faded to mist and they sat with the engine idling, enjoying the heat of the car.
“Come on,” said Carmichael. “Let’s see what we see. Take the car around back.”
Once they were parked on the street behind Orchard, Car heaved his big body out of the passenger side. “I’ll knock. You stay on the back in case he runs.”
Turner almost laughed. Maybe King Tut was up there sitting on a stash of laptops and jewelry from the Wooster Square jobs, or maybe a few teenagers were camping on a mattress smoking weed and reading comic books. But once Big Car pounded on that door, they were bound to bolt, and it would be up to Turner to corral whoever came down those back stairs. Car wasn’t going to embarrass himself trying to sprint through the streets of New Haven.
Turner watched Carmichael slip into the alley beside the house and took up his position by the back stairs. He peered through the dirty window to the first floor—an empty hallway, no furniture except a rug that had seen better days, more mail piled by the slot.
A minute later, he saw Car’s shadow appear in the front window and heard the loud thud thud thud of his fist pounding on the door. A pause. No
sounds from the house. Then again, thud thud thud. “New Haven PD!” Car bellowed.
Nothing. No scramble of feet, no window sliding open above. Then Car kicked the door in. “New Haven PD!” he shouted again.
Turner stared at Car through the window. The hell was he doing? They hadn’t actually been summoned here by a landlord. There was no reason for them to smash their way in.
Car gestured for Turner to follow.
“Fuck it,” said Turner. What else were they going to do this morning? King Tut was their only lead, and no way Big Car was getting jammed up on an illegal search. Turner drew his weapon, took a few steps back, then slammed his shoulder into the door, feeling it give way.
Before he could even ask Car what they were doing, Car had a finger to his lips and was pointing up the stairs. “There’s someone up there. I heard it.”
“Heard what?” Turner whispered.
“Could have been a cat. Could have been a girl. Could have been nothing.”
The prickle spread from the back of Turner’s neck. Not nothing. “Clear the ground floor,” said Car. “I’m going up.”
Turner did as he was told, but there wasn’t much territory to cover. A living room with a stained mattress and dirty clothes heaped on top, a bare kitchen where nearly every cupboard was open, as if someone had searched it. Two empty bedrooms, a bathroom with a rotting floor where it looked like a pipe had burst.
“Clear,” he shouted. “I’m coming up!”
He had one foot on the bottom step when he heard Car shout. A shot rang out, then another.
Turner sprinted up the steps, weapon drawn. He felt it squirm in his hand, looked down, and saw nothing but the hard black shadow of his sidearm.
Fear was messing with his head. Not fear for himself. Fear for what he might do, who he might hurt, his brother’s voice in his head: You like that
badge and gun. Turner always said the same prayer. Please, God. Don’t let it be a kid. Don’t let it be one of us.
“Carmichael?” he called out.
No answer came. No sound. The layout of the second floor was almost identical to the floor below.
Turner spoke into his radio. “Detective Abel Turner. I am at 372 Orchard. Shots fired, request backup and medical.”
He didn’t wait for the response, sweeping through the first bedroom, the bathroom. As he entered the second, he saw a body on the floor.
Not Carmichael. His mind took a minute to understand. The man on the ground, a boy really, couldn’t be older than twenty, a hole in his chest, a hole in the floorboards beside him. Carmichael standing over him.
Turner recognized Delan Tuttle from his file. King Tut. Bleeding out on the ground.
“Shit,” said Turner kneeling beside the body. “You hit?” he asked Car, because that’s what he was supposed to say. But he knew Car wasn’t hit, the same way he knew this kid wasn’t strapped. His eyes scanned the room, hoping a weapon might materialize.
“I called a bus,” Carmichael said.
That was something at least. But an ambulance wasn’t going to do Tuttle any good. The boy didn’t have a pulse. No heartbeat. No weapon.
“What happened?” Turner asked.
“He took me by surprise. He had something in his hand.”
“Okay,” Turner said. But he wasn’t okay. His heart was hammering away in his chest. The body was still warm. Tuttle had been hit almost directly in the center of his chest, as if he’d stood still for it. He was wearing a T-shirt, jeans. He had to be cold, Turner thought. The heat wasn’t on in here. There was no furniture. It had snowed just two days before. And the room was barren—no old cigarettes or food wrappers, not even a blanket. There were no signs he or anyone else had been squatting here.
He’d come here to meet someone. Maybe Carmichael.
“We don’t have much time,” Car said. He was calm, but Car was always calm. “Let’s get our stories straight.”
What story was there to get straight? And where was the mysterious object Tuttle was supposed to have had in his hand?
“Here,” said Car. He had a white rabbit by the neck. It was wriggling in his fist, its soft feet treading the air, its eyes wide, the whites showing. Turner could see its heart thumping against its furry chest.
Then he blinked and Car was holding a gun out to him. “Wipe it,” he said.
Turner had meant to be stern, but he found a nervous smile spreading across his face. “You can’t be serious.”
“Ambulance is gonna be here soon. Rat squad and the rest. Don’t screw around, Turner.”
Turner looked at the gun in Carmichael’s hand. “Where did you get it?” “Found it at a scene a while back. Call it an insurance policy.” Insurance. A gun they could plant on Tuttle. “We don’t have to—”
“Turner,” Carmichael said. “You know I’m good police and you know how close I am to punching out. I need you to back me here. The kid drew on me. I discharged my sidearm. That’s all there is to it. A good clean shoot.”
But everything about this felt wrong. Not just the shoot. Not just the body cooling on the floor behind him.
“What was he doing here, Car?”
“The fuck do I know? I got a tip, I followed it.”
But none of that added up. Why had they been chasing their tails for weeks on what should have been a routine investigation into a series of robberies? Where were the goods Tuttle had supposedly taken? Why hadn’t Tuttle run when he heard Carmichael pounding at the door? Because he’d been expecting him. Because Carmichael had set him up.
“You were meeting him here. He knew you.” “Don’t start getting smart, Turner.”
Turner thought of the new deck Carmichael had put on his house last summer. They’d sat out there, barbecuing, drinking longnecks, talking about Turner’s career. Car had said his brother-in-law was a contractor, got him a deal. Turner had known he was lying, but it hadn’t bothered him.
Most police who had been around long enough were a little bent, but that didn’t make them crooked. And he’d already seen Car’s wife wore better clothes than any detective’s wife should. Turner knew his labels, he liked a nice suit, and the women he dated appreciated that he could speak that language. He could tell a genuine Chanel bag from a knockoff, and Car’s wife always had the real thing slung over her arm.
Bent, not crooked. But maybe Turner had been wrong about that.
In the distance, a siren began to wail. They couldn’t be more than a minute or two away.
“Turner,” Carmichael said. His eyes were steady. “You know what the choice is here. I go down, you go down with me. There are questions about me, there are going to be questions about you too.” He held the gun out. “This fixes all of it for us. You’re too good to be brought down by my fuckup.”
He was right about that. Turner felt himself reaching for the gun, saw the weapon in his hands.
“And what if I say no?” Turner asked, now that the gun was out of Car’s reach. “What if I say there was nothing in Tuttle’s record to indicate he was slick enough to get away with multiple B&Es without help?”
“You’re reaching, Turner.”
He was. He didn’t know how involved Car had been in the robberies. Maybe he’d just taken a little cash or a spare laptop to look the other way. But the prickle was telling him that this was no mistake. It wasn’t a fuckup. It was a setup. And King Tut was only part of it.
Carmichael shrugged. “Your prints on that piece, kid. Your word against mine. You’ve got a bright future. I knew that first time I met you. But you can’t do the job alone. You need friends, people you can trust. Can I trust you, Turner?”
The prickle racing over Turner’s skull turned to the crackle of wildfire. If he was involved with Tuttle and the robberies, why not get rid of him quietly? Why bring Turner here to witness the shoot?
Turner saw it all then. Car hadn’t just chosen him as cover because he was Black. He’d chosen him because Turner was ambitious—so hungry to get ahead, he could be nudged. He could be used. Tuttle’s dead body was
Carmichael’s chance to bring Turner into the fold. Two birds with one stone. Once Turner wiped the gun and wrapped Tuttle’s finger around that trigger, once he repeated Carmichael’s lies, he would belong to Big Car.
“You set this up. You set me up.”
Carmichael looked almost impressed. “I’m watching over you, kid. I always have. There’s no big decision to make here. Do the smart thing and you’re on the fast track, my heir apparent. There will be nothing in your way. Or try to play hero and see how far it gets you. I have a lot of friends, Turner. And it won’t just be you who feels the heat from this particular burn. Think about your mama, your granddad, how proud they are of you.”
Turner tried to understand how he’d walked into a pile of shit this big. Why hadn’t he seen trouble coming this time? Or had he just gotten complacent? He’d been waiting for disaster so long, he’d gotten too used to fear. His alarms had tripped so often, he’d started ignoring them. And now he was crouching by a dead body, being threatened by a man who could destroy his career with a whispered word, who wouldn’t think twice about hurting the people he loved if he wronged him. He was about to cross a line into a country he didn’t want to know. He would never find his way home.
“I don’t want to do this,” Turner said. “I’m … I’m not a criminal.”
“Neither am I. I’m a man doing his best in a tough situation, just like you. Doing wrong doesn’t make you wrong.”
But it might. Turner wasn’t stupid enough to believe this would be the last favor, the last lie. This was only the beginning. Car would always have more friends and better connections. He’d always be a threat to Turner’s family, his career. Do the wrong thing and he’d keep rising, so long as he kept Car’s secrets, followed his commands. Do the right thing and he’d tank his career and put his family in Carmichael’s crosshairs. Those were his choices.
“That kid you killed,” said Turner. “That was a bad shoot, wasn’t it?” “He wasn’t a kid. He was a criminal.”
“So you know your way around. You’re not going to let us get jammed up with some amateur-hour bullshit.”
“I’ve got you.”
There was Turner’s answer, loud and clear. He’d been on one side of the law and now he was firmly planted on the other. How long had it taken? Thirty seconds? A minute?
“You’re one of the good ones,” Car said, his eyes kind. “You’ll come back from this.”
“You’re right,” said Turner, taking his first steps away from the rules he’d always understood and abided by. He didn’t know if he’d come back from this. But Car wouldn’t.
Turner rose and shot Chris Carmichael twice in the chest.
Big Car didn’t even look surprised. It was like he’d always known, like he’d been waiting just the same way Turner had for something bad to happen. He didn’t so much fall as sit down and then slump to the side.
Turner wiped the piece clean just as Car had told him to. He tucked it into Tuttle’s hand, fired another shot so the gunshot residue would at least seem plausible, though there was so much flying around this crime scene, the forensics would be shit anyway.
He heard sirens shrieking, tires squealing, officers shouting to each other as they surrounded the building.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to Delan Tuttle. “He’ll be a hero.”
He couldn’t fight the tears that came. That was okay; the officers arriving would think he was crying for Big Car, his partner, his mentor. Chris Carmichael, the legend.
I’ll play until they get tired of playing—that was the promise he’d made himself. He was a good detective and no one was going to tell him differently. No matter how much shit they made him walk through, no matter how much blood he got on his hands.
Only then did he realize that sense of foreboding was gone. No prickle.
No fear. They’d done all they could to him.
He closed his eyes, counted to ten, listened for the sound of boots on the stairs. The sirens faded until all he could hear was the sound of his own breathing, in and out. The rain had stopped.
She stopped breathing. That was how she knew it had all gone wrong.
Hellie wanted to stay there, lying on her side, watching Alex sleep. When men slept, it was as if all the violence drained out of them, the ambition, the trying. Their faces went soft and gentle. But not Alex. Even in sleep there was a furrow between her brows. Her jaw was set.
No rest for the wicked, Hellie wanted to say. But the words died even before they could form on her tongue. She knew she’d been about to laugh, but it was as if the laugh had no place to take root in her. No belly to brew in, no lungs to gather breath with.
Hellie could feel herself breaking apart now that she had no body to hold on to. She wasn’t sure when it had happened.
Not soon enough. Not fast enough to spare her all the pain that went before. Last night was a bad night in a string of bad nights. She somehow knew the memories would start to fade as soon she let go of the world. She wouldn’t have to think of Ariel or Len or any of it. The shame would go, the sorrow. All she had to do was leave. She would empty like an overturned cup. The pull of that glorious nothing was almost irresistible, the promise of forgetting. She would shed her skin. She would become light.
But she couldn’t go. Not yet. She needed to see her girl one more time.
Alex’s eyes opened. Fast, no stutter of the eyelids, no easy road out of sleep.
She looked at Hellie and smiled. It was like watching a flower bloom, the wariness gone, leaving nothing but gladness behind. And Hellie knew she’d made a terrible mistake in staying, in holding on to say a last goodbye, because God, this was bad. So much worse than knowing she was dead. She wanted to believe she wouldn’t miss any part of her sad, wasted life, but she would miss this; she’d miss Alex. The longing for her, for one more moment of warmth, for one more breath, hurt worse than anything in life had.
Alex’s nose wrinkled. Hellie loved the sweetness in her, that it hadn’t shriveled in the relentless hailstorm of shit that was life with Len. “Good morning, Smelly Hellie.”
Dimly Hellie realized that she had vomited in the night. Maybe she had choked on it. She couldn’t be sure. There had been so much fentanyl in her system. She’d needed it. She had wanted to obliterate herself. She’d thought
she’d feel clean, but now that it was done, she was still stuck with this weight of sadness.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Alex said. “For good. We’re done with this place.”
Hellie nodded, and the ache was a wave that just keep growing, threatening to crest. Because Alex meant it. Alex still believed something good was bound to happen, had to happen to them. And maybe Hellie had believed too, not in the loopy dreams of college classes and part-time jobs that Alex liked to get lost in. But … had Hellie believed that none of this shit would stick to her? At least not permanently. None of this tragedy belonged to her. It was trouble she had picked up, but she would set it down again, get back to the real business of being human, of the life she was meant to have. This apartment, these people, Len and Betcha and Eitan and Ariel and even Alex—they were a pause, a way station.
But it hadn’t worked out like that, had it?
Alex reached for her, reached through her. She was weeping now, crying out for her, and Hellie was crying too, but it didn’t feel the way it had when she was alive. No heat in her face, no hitching breaths, it was like dissolving into rain. Every time Alex tried to hold her, she glimpsed flashes of her life. The desk in Alex’s little-girl bedroom, carefully arranged with dried flowers and dragonfly barrettes. Sitting in a parking lot with the older kids, passing a bong around. The crumpled wing of a butterfly lying on damp tile. Each time, it was like stepping out of the sun into a cool, dark room, like sliding underwater.
Len slammed into their bedroom, Betcha close behind. She felt a pang of fondness for them, now that she could see them at a distance. Betcha’s belly stretching his T-shirt. The smattering of acne on Len’s forehead. But then Len had his hands on Alex, his palm shoved over her mouth.
Everything was going the way it always did, from bad to worse. They were talking about what to do with her body, and then Len backhanded Alex, and Hellie thought, Okay, that’s enough. Enough of this life. There was nothing more to see here. No happy memory to leave on. She felt herself drifting and it didn’t feel good, but it did feel better than what had come before.
She slipped through the wall and down the hall to the living room. She saw Ariel on the couch in his undershorts. But she didn’t want to think about him or the things he’d done to her. The shame felt distant, like it belonged to someone else. That was okay. She liked that.
What was she waiting for? No one was going to speak for her; nothing was going to change. There would be no real goodbye, no sign she had ever been in the world. Her parents. God. Her parents would wake up to a call from the police or the morgue telling them that she’d been found in an alley. She was so sorry, so terribly sorry, but soon the guilt would be gone too, as if all that was left of her was a shrug.
Len and Betcha were fumbling with the apartment door while Alex cried, and Ariel said something. He laughed, a high-pitched giggle, and it was like being thrown back into her body, hearing him laugh as he pushed his way into her. This wasn’t supposed to be the end of it all.
Alex was staring at her. She could still see Hellie when no one else could. Hadn’t that always been the way with them?
But had Hellie ever really seen Alex?
Because now that she was looking, really looking at her, she could see Alex wasn’t just a girl with warm skin and a clever tongue and hair shiny as a mirror. A ring of blue fire glowed around her. Alex was a doorway, and through her, Hellie could see the stars.
Let me in. The thought comes from nowhere, a natural thing: She sees a door, and so she wishes to walk through it.
Alex hears her. Hellie knows this because Alex says, “Stay.”
Let me in. Is it a demand? Alex extends her hand.
Hellie is ready. She is pouring into Alex. She is baptized in blue flame. The sorrow is gone and all she knows is how good the bat feels in her hand. She is stepping out onto the field, and her teammates are chanting,
“Give ’em hell, Hellie!” Her parents are in the stands, and they are beautiful, copper bright, and kind. This is the last moment she remembers before everything started going wrong and kept going wrong, when she still knew who she was.
She is standing at the plate in the sunshine. She knows how strong she is. There is no confusion in her, no pain. She flexes her gloved fingers over the handle of the bat, testing its weight. The pitcher is trying to give her eyes, psyche her out, and she laughs, because she’s that good, because no one and nothing can stop her.
“Do you get nervous?” her little sister asked once.
“Never,” Hellie said. “What is there to be nervous about?”
She doesn’t want to die. Not really. She just doesn’t want to feel anything anymore because everything feels bad. She wants to find her way back to this moment, to the sun, and the crowd, and the dream of her own potential. There is no worry about college or grades or the future. It will all come easy as it always has.
She shuffles her feet against the plate, tests her swing, the weight of the bat, watches the pitcher, sees the sweat on her brow, knows the girl is afraid.
Hellie sees the windup, the throw. She swings. The crack the bat makes when it connects with Len’s skull is perfect. She pictures his head sailing over the fence. Going. Going. Gone.
She could swing that bat all day. There is no regret, no sadness.
They swing the bat. They swing again. This is the way they say their goodbyes, and only when every last word has been spoken does she notice there’s a rabbit in the middle of the room, sitting on the blood-soaked carpet.
“Babbit Rabbit,” Hellie whispers. She picks him up, seeing the red smears her hands leave on his soft white sides. “I thought you were dead.”
“We’re all dead.”
For a second Hellie is sure the rabbit is speaking to her, but when she looks up, she sees Alex. The old living room at Ground Zero is gone, the blood, the bits of brain, the broken bat. Alex is standing in an orchard full of black trees. Hellie wants to warn her not to eat the fruit that grows on them, but she is already floating, fading away. Not even a shrug now. Going. Going.